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Emotion, Digital and technology

How do horror video games work, and why do people play them?

A study has shown that horror games produce fright responses by targeting our evolved defence system.

06 July 2015

By Guest

The video game industry outpaced the movie industry several years ago, and video games remain a rapidly growing market. In 2014, US consumers spent more than $22 billion on game content, hardware, and accessories. While researchers in media psychology have been busy investigating and discussing the effects of violent video games, another peculiar and persistent game genre—horror—has attracted very little empirical research. What are the effects of horror video games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Resident Evil, how do they work, and why do people play them?

A new study addresses these questions. Teresa Lynch and Nicole Martins of Indiana University looked at college students’ experiences with horror video games and found that about half of their sample (53 per cent) had tried playing such games and been frightened by them. They also found that: horror games produce these fright responses by targeting our evolved defence system (evolution has shaped us to be easily scared by the dangers that threatened our ancestors); that there are predictable individual differences in how likely people are to seek out and be scared by horror video games; and that interactivity is crucial to these effects. Moreover, the researchers found that horror video games can have strong spill-over effects, causing disrupted sleep and increased fearfulness after playing.

The researchers had 269 undergrad students complete online forms on their experiences with frightening video games. They were asked to indicate which games had scared them, identify the game stimuli that scared them, and list the kinds of fright reactions they experienced during and after gameplay. Most of the respondents (97 per cent) were 18-24 years old. The researchers used a combination of forced-choice and open-ended questions.

The list of games that had produced fright reactions in players is dominated by so-called survival horror games such as Slender: The Eight Pages. These games typically use a first-person perspective to situate the player in a game world that teems with danger, usually from hostile non-player characters (monsters, more often than not). The game objective is to survive while overcoming a number of challenges, such as finding concealed resources necessary for progressing in the game. The game features that participants identified as particularly scary included darkness, the unknown, and disfigured humans (including zombies). This makes psychological sense because all these features target our evolved defence mechanisms.

Our fearful instincts evolved to protect us from dangers in the real world, so why do horror video games use patently unrealistic stimuli such as zombies and other supernatural monsters? The researchers found that perceived realism in horror video games is important in producing fright responses. Strikingly, though, they found that graphic realism (the quality of a visual representation) is more important in scaring players than is manifest realism (how likely something is to occur in the real world). Even though zombies don’t exist in reality, a realistically rendered representation of a walking, rotting, infectious, homicidal corpse combines stimuli that evoke strong fear-and-disgust emotions in players.

The study found some reliable individual differences in horror video game susceptibility and consumption. Men play more horror video games, and enjoy playing them more, than do women. Contrary to expectations, however, the study found no gender-mediated difference in the frequency of experienced fright. Guys may be more drawn to horror video games, but they are just as spooked by those games, it appears. The study found a weak correlation between sensation-seeking—a personality trait that makes people susceptible to boredom and eager to seek out stimulating experiences—and enjoyment of horror video games. Sensation-seekers enjoy horror video games more and experience less fright while playing, but curiously they don’t seem to spend more time playing horror video games than do non-sensation-seekers.

The researchers also found that player perceptions of interactivity were crucial to the games’ function of producing fright responses. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that horror in whatever medium works by transporting the audience into a fictional world teeming with danger. Horror video games are particularly effective because they ease such imaginative transportation via the illusion of agency—the player interfaces with the game and interacts with the game world, using for example keyboard keys to control the avatar’s movements and actions. You may have noticed that when people recount their game experiences, they tend to use a first-person narrator: “I went into the warehouse and ganked all the zombies with my shotgun.” This suggests that horror video games foster immersion much more strongly than do films and fiction, even those stories that are told from a first-person point-of-view.

This study, however, did not operationalize interactivity. What makes some games feel more interactive than others, and does higher interactivity—for example, having more in-game behavioral options— produce stronger fright responses? The nascent technology of virtual reality suggests that interactivity is not the only route to immersion. Many of the horror video games designed for the Oculus Rift, a portable virtual reality headset, have very little interactivity, but they are still notoriously immersive. There’s a whole YouTube industry of Oculus Rift players filming themselves reacting strongly to primitive horror simulations.

Horror video games are here to stay, but we still know little about their short- and long-term effects, and while the present study makes important inroads, it does not tell us why so many people are attracted to the kinds of video games that are designed to make them feel bad. The researchers suggest that the games may function as a kind of training for real-life emergencies, but that hypothesis awaits experimental investigation.

Further reading

Lynch, T., & Martins, N. (2015). Nothing to Fear? An Analysis of College Students’ Fear Experiences With Video Games Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 59 (2), 298-317 DOI: 10.1080/08838151.2015.1029128

About the author

Post written by Dr Mathias Clasen (@MathiasClasen) for the BPS Research Digest. Clasen, an assistant professor of literature and media at the English Department, Aarhus University, has published on horror and evil monsters and is currently working on a book about the biological underpinnings of modern American horror in literature, films, and video games.